The Bankero Festival

A celebration of the famous falls

By Chito Gonzalez

PAGSANJAN recently celebrated the 5th Bangkero Festival, held annually in the first week of March to welcome the start of summer. No, it was not a bankers’ festival as one might think.  The kind of bangkeros the festival pays tribute to the excellent boatmen who shoot the famous Pagsanjan rapids.

The annual boat race

For trivia aficionados, did you know that Pagsanjan Falls was once called the Magdapio Falls?

Magdapio, you see, is the town nearest to Calvinti where the rapids end.  The trip to the waterfalls however, which is responsible for the rapids, begin in Pagsanjan, and so its name was changed.  The route, which the rapids take, is as follows: Pagsanjan through a part of Lumban, then on to Calvinti.

Just before the festival proper, Mayor Emilio Ramon “ER” Ejercito III described Pagsanjan’s contribution to DOT Secretary Richard Gordon’s “WOW Philippines” project in the following words: “(It will be) Wet … Oozing … Wild, and worth it!”

It is interesting to note that within Pagsanjan is a delta that separates the waters from the rapids into the Bumbungan and Balanac rivers, which empty out into Laguna de Bay. That is why the name Pagsanjan is most fitting for the falls—“pinagsanghan” meaning, “branching.”  The rapids flow into one river, which branches out into two rivers to facilitate travel and trade. And so because of these surrounding rivers, Pagsanjeños became excellent swimmers, boatmen, and boat builders, and remain so to this very day.

However, it was brought to my attention that boat building has become a rarity in Pagsanjan.  The reason for this according to Mang Po, a local boat builder, is that the lawaan, the wood used for building boats, is becoming scarcer and terribly expensive.  He laments that these days, it costs as much as P20,000 for one lawaan tree to be carved into a bangka.

Still, this problem has never stopped the boat builders from pursuing their craft for bangka repairs, even now, are aplenty—more so in the days leading to the Bangkero Festival.

Apart from “shooting the rapids,” the festival program included boxing, which I later found was a preoccupation of Pagsanjeños.  “Kaya lang wala pa kaming champion,” Vice Mayor Melvin Madriaga lamented.

I witnessed the first fight between two energetic 17 years olds, the obviously tougher of the two forcing the other to retire in the second round. The next bout brought in two men in their late ’30s or early ’40s that I couldn’t help but remark to the manang beside me, “O, mga beterano na ito!”  She then turned to me and said that the two guys are actually friends except that the guy in blue was gay (A gay boxer!  Get a load of that!).

Needless to say, the bout was super funny, not because gays are funny of course, but simply because of what happened.  It needed four other men to break them out of an embrace!

Other competitions were also held at the festival, including bunong braso, palo sebo, swimming, street dancing, land floats, river floats, and that which completes any Philippine Fiesta—a beauty pageant.

The Bangkero Festival was a joint project of Pagsanjan Mayor E.R. Ejercito III; the Municipal Council of Pagsanjan; the Pagsanjan Tourism, Culture and Arts Development Office; and the Magkakaisang Lakas ng Bangkero sa Pagsanjan.

It is the objective of Mayor Ejercito and the local DOT office to make Pagsanjan the “Tourist Capital of Laguna” through projects as the Bangkero Festival. 

The early days of Pagsanjan

Chinese and Japanese settlers founded Pagsanjan in 1578, impressed by its strategic location for trade, and its lush natural beauty. Formerly a barrio of Lumbang, it was organized into a municipality in 1668.  Eventually, Spanish colonizers decreed Pagsanjan to be the capital city of the province of Laguna, from 1688 to 1858.

Other tourist attractions of Pagsanjan, aside from “shooting the ra-pids,” are the Boy Scouts of the Philippines Laguna Council Jamboree site, the centuries-old Puerto Real, old ancestral homes, the Lagaslas Picnic Grounds and the old parish church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.